Sharks Water Polo Team Seems Unstoppable

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Coach Mike Mulligan speaks with his team at practice.

Although the team has continued its string of successful seasons this year, Malibu High School boys’ water polo coach Mike Mulligan says something is different about this year’s squad. 

“They are an eclectic group of guys that have their own method of getting things done,” said Mulligan, Malibu’s water polo coach for over two decades. “They are very supportive of each other, but they rib each other at the same time. They know how to push each other’s buttons, but in crunch time they really come together and play as one.” 

This year’s team has a bit of an edge, or “brotherly rivalry” in the words of Mulligan, and that extra emotional tilt has helped the Sharks, California Interscholastic Federation Tournament runners-up in 2013, garner an 18-4 and a No. 1 ranking in the CIF’s Division VI. 

This week, Malibu, which is also in first-place in the Tri-Valley Region with a 7-0 record, is coming into its Tuesday and Wednesday contests on a five-game win streak. They’ve outscored opponents 85-42 during the streak. 

The solid run kicked off with victories over Pacifica and Newbury Park in the Oxnard Pacific View Water Polo Tournament. The last three wins have been over Villanova Prep, Carpinteria and Cate. 

A huge part of the Shark’s success this year has been the play of Freddy Keith and Owen Franz. Franz was a member of last season’s All-CIF Division VI team. Mulligan said the two have an uncanny sense of finding each other in good scoring positions. 

“It started to develop at the beginning of the season, and as the season went on they became more comfortable with each other,” he said. “Knowing where one guy would be, and having the confidence knowing that guy will make the pass to him.” 

Mulligan said team captain Isaac Vandor has been another key.

“He understands the game,” he said. “He is very vocal. Just in the game last night we had, he got in the pool and instantly scored a goal. It helped the team go on a little run.” 

The player that has made the biggest improvement is goalie Dax Nittolo. 

“His game has improved 100 percent from last year,” said Mulligan. “He is confident. He is aggressive in goal. He is communicating better. He doesn’t have any fear of the ball this year. He dedicated himself to getting better this year.” 

Coming off a 30-1 season in which they were beat by Palm Desert in the state championship game, Mulligan said the 18-member Sharks entered the season motivated to make a deep run in the playoffs. 

“The guys really took it upon themselves to put in as much work as they could throughout the year to have a successful playoff run this year,” he said. 

The Sharks started out the season a bit shaky. They posted wins against Crescenta Valley and Newbury Park before suffering two losses. Then they reeled off 10 consecutive wins before going 2-2 in the Oxnard tournament. 

Mulligan said the Sharks are aggressive, fast and smart in terms of game strategy, but they still can improve. 

“Everything we talk about during the year is put back to we need to do this better when we get to the playoffs,” he said. “We need to be more pressed on defense when we are in this game or just saying, ‘We got to do this better, that better for the playoffs. It’s not hurting us right now, but against tougher competition it could.’” 

After their Nov. 5 Senior Night game against Villanova Prep and Nov. 7 Homecoming game against rival Santa Monica, the Sharks will splash into postseason waters. Mulligan said playing club water polo in the off-season prepared a lot of the Sharks for this season. 

“Things they are seeing now during the season they have seen before,” he said. “So, nothing is really new to them. It really prepared them well for the high school season, and I am hoping it prepared them well for the playoffs.”